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Pax Christi takes on new enemy: racism

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Ashland, Va.

For the next 20 years and beyond, Pax Christi USA will take on an unfamiliar strongman: racism. That decision was made at a national assembly in late July.

The new enemy will require a different strategy.

Unlike the external giant called the military industrial complex, a giant Pax Christi USA knows well, the new effort to become a multicultural, anti-racist organization will require the slaying of internal giants, most of them from within the ranks of this national movement that is comprised almost entirely of white, well-heeled Catholics.

Few people of color could be found among the 400 or so in attendance at the July 28-30 meeting at Randolph-Macon College near Richmond. On the 13-member national council, Cathleen Crayton, an African-American, is the lone board member of color. Crayton, who has been a key player in planning Pax Christi’s major shift toward diversity and inclusiveness, says the effort, which began in earnest a year ago, is sincere.

“It’s been a very gradual process even to get this far,” said Crayton, an administrator at the University of Southern California. “In terms of values and in terms of norms, I think people want this. On the other hand I think that it’s going to take a lot of people out of their comfort zones.

“Pax Christi is not known in communities of color,” Crayton said. “I mean, it just isn’t known. It’s known in affluent white communities and parishes and that’s the other issue. There’s also a class dimension too. Pax Christi is white and it’s very well educated and it’s also high income.”

Both Pax Christi national coordinator Nancy Small and national council chair Tom Cordaro admit the task at hand looms large, but in a church that is quickly becoming more and more diverse with its growing ranks of Latinos, the time for creating a truly diverse movement is now. “I think it’s going to be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, challenges we’ve ever faced,” Small said.

In the past, the peace movement has focused primarily on issues of war and peace, Cordaro said. The movement has “struggled against the arms race, the threat of war,” he said. “We opposed U.S. military intervention everywhere. But this way of perceiving the world is proving to be too limited. While attention must always be given to issues of war and peace … we’re now coming to recognize the imperative of building relationships with our brothers and sisters in the Third World neighborhood on the other side of town,” Cordaro said.

To begin this process of transformation, Pax Christi has enlisted the help of Crossroads Ministry, an interfaith training group that helps groups build multicultural diversity. A year ago, 45 of Pax Christi’s national and regional leaders and staff attended a three-day Crossroads workshop. Since then, Pax Christi has established a 23-member “anti-racism team” as part of a process it calls “Brothers and Sisters All.” With eight African-Americans and two Latinos, the group is far more diverse than Pax Christi’s approximately 95 percent white membership. The team will meet in October and February to develop goals and a 20-year vision for building a multi-cultural movement. Participants are diverse in class as well as race, said Crayton, who is on the team.

“When we gathered last August, some people were concerned that the work we are doing with Crossroads might mean that [Pax Christi USA] is changing its focus,” Small said in a keynote speech. “They worried that we might be moving away from our focus on nonviolence and disarmament to work on issues of anti-racism. What we do won’t change, but how we do it will. Instead of working for justice on behalf of people of color who aren’t around the table, we are hopeful that we will work for justice with people of color. And as we welcome in people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, we’ll need to make room for cultural differences. We’ll need to stretch ourselves.”

With such a large majority of whites, Small said it’s not surprising that Pax Christi USA has had trouble attracting non-whites to its ranks.

“When we gathered last year and talked about white privilege and racist structures, which Pax Christi participates in, it was painful stuff. But I believe the gifts that await us will be well worth the pain,” she said. “Our work for peace will be enriched and enhanced as we embrace the wisdom, strength and spirit of people of color.”

National Catholic Reporter, August 25, 2000